Quarantine Recommendations is a series recommending pieces of media that are now free to watch/read/or play during the COVID-19 pandemic, with detailed explanations as to why.
Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon’s masterstroke “The Wire” is the greatest television show of all time. (Don’t @ me.) What “The Wire” accomplishes in its five seasons is nothing short of miraculous, and nothing any network has put out ever since has quite matched it – not even “Breaking Bad,” another favorite.
“The Wire” is an expansive ensemble piece. Its main character (debatably) is Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West), a Baltimore police officer who “doesn’t play by the rules” and who is almost certainly a hot mess—constantly at risk of losing his job, a chronic alcoholic and estranged from his wife for these reasons. The first season is a straight–forward “cops and robbers” story following McNulty and his compatriots work to put the Barksdale gang – headlined by Wood Harris and Idris Elba (giving career best performances, especially impressive given the latter’s resume) – behind bars.
“The Wire” expands upon that with relative ease. In the second season the series expands upon the state of the unions, as of 2002, in Baltimore. The third moves into city politics, the fourth into the school system and the fifth examines the media—all the while maintaining a vast ensemble of characters with minimal defects in the narrative.
When it was on the air, “The Wire” struggled both with ratings and awards recognition. This is in no small part due to the attention the show demands – going over the inner workings of police bureaucracy, every minute detail of how a wiretap works – and the show doesn’t really hold the viewer’s hand. This is coupled with a slow, methodical pace that is antithetical to true binge material and compounded by the many characters on the street who speak in dialect.
What makes “The Wire” great is the well of empathy it has for the vast majority of its expansive cast, all while not shying away from presenting moral ambiguities with clarity. After four seasons, it becomes a trial to list your top 20 favorite characters because there are so many great characters that even a list of 20 will have glaring omissions.
In the 1980s, David Simon was working at the Baltimore Sun. He did accept a buyout in 1995, however, claiming in a 2007 New Yorker profile that in season five of “The Wire” “talent was being squandered under new management.” Simon then moved into writing creative nonfiction works “The Corner” and “Homicide,” helping to adapt “Homicide” into an NBC series in the ‘90s and “The Corner” into an HBO miniseries at the turn of the millennium.
“The Wire” is the culmination of all of Simon’s previous works—debatably the perfected form of what he’s been trying to do since the beginning, a high point that flies far above his previous work and a success that he has not matched with his later series “Treme” and “The Deuce.” In the initial pitch letter for the series, Simon described “The Wire” as “a police story set amid the dysfunction and indifference of an urban department – one that has failed to come to terms with the permanent nature of urban drug culture, one in which thinking cops, and thinking street players, must make their way independent of simple explanations.”
Simon spoke to Vanity Fair about the resurgence of “The Wire” in the wake of its availability during the coronavirus quarantine. “I’m happy its had the shelf life its had,” Simon said. He has taken the fact that people are only beginning to appreciate the series even after its long been off air with a sense of humor. “It’s like a book—it will be found by the people who are looking for that book, or something like it.”
While “The Wire” is not the easiest show to get into, it is one of the most rewarding to dissect and drink in once it gets going.
“The Wire” is available for streaming on HBO GO. It will be available for free for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.